SEOUL: South Korea and the United States on Thursday completed the deployment of a US missile defense system to counter North Korean threats, sparking demonstrations by residents and a diplomatic protest from Beijing.
A convoy of US military trucks carrying four launchers for the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system made their way through an activists’ blockade at a former golf course in the southern county of Seongju.
Some 8,000 riot police were mobilized to help the convoy get through the 400 protestors staging a sit-in. Many of the demonstrators had locked themselves into place with chains, while others had used tractors and pickup trucks as barriers.
Police shattered windows to break into the vehicles and tow them away, Yonhap news agency said. About 20 people were injured in subsequent scuffles, it added.
The system’s powerful radar and two launchers had already been deployed, infuriating Beijing, which fears it could compromise its own missile capabilities. It has previously retaliated against Seoul with unofficial economic sanctions.
The installation of the rest of the battery was delayed, ostensibly on environmental grounds, by South Korea’s new liberal President Moon Jae-In.
But Prime Minister Lee Nak-Yon said Thursday the THAAD deployment was a “difficult yet inevitable decision” Seoul had to make because of North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
The North carried out its sixth and largest nuclear test at the weekend, which Pyongyang said was a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on a missile. In July it launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that appeared to bring much of the US mainland within range.
Residents in the farming region of Seongju fear possible environmental and health risks from THAAD’s radar, and say it could make their area a target in the event of conflict.
Beijing has imposed a tacit ban on Chinese tour groups visiting South Korea, and shut down more than 80 stores owned by the Lotte Group—which handed the golf course THAAD site over to the government—costing it around 500 billion won ($440 million).
Car firm Hyundai has also seen its first-half China sales plummet by 47 percent.
Beijing lodged a diplomatic protest with Seoul Thursday demanding the withdrawal of THAAD.
“Our stance on the THAAD issue has been consistent and clear,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing.
“We demanded South Korea and the United States stop relevant deployment procedures immediately… in view of the security interest and concerns of regional neighbors, including China.”
North Korea held a mass celebration for the scientists involved in carrying out its largest nuclear blast to date, with fireworks and a mass rally in Pyongyang.
Citizens of the capital lined the streets Wednesday to wave pink and purple pom-poms and cheer a convoy of buses carrying the specialists into the city, and toss confetti over them as they walked into Kim Il-Sung Square.
“We offer the greatest honor to Comrade Kim Jong-Un, the Supreme Leader who brought us the greatest achievement in the history of the Korean people,” read one banner in the plaza, where tens of thousands of people were gathered.
Another, with a picture of a missile on a caterpillar-tracked transporter, proclaimed: “No-one can stop us on our road to the future.”
The blast triggered global condemnation and calls by the US, South Korea, Japan and others for stronger United Nations Security Council sanctions against the North.
The official Korean Central News Agency described it as a “successful ICBM-ready H-bomb test.”
Speakers at the rally said the North’s military “will put an end to the destiny of the gangster-like US imperialists through the most merciless and strongest preemptive strikes if they and the hordes of traitors finally ignite a war,” KCNA reported.
Sunday’s blast was the North’s sixth nuclear detonation and by far its biggest to date.
Hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs, are thermonuclear weapons far more powerful than ordinary fission-based atomic bombs, and use a nuclear blast to generate the intense temperatures required for fusion to take place.
Foreign governments have yet to confirm whether Sunday’s blast was a full two-stage thermonuclear weapon, or an enhanced fission device.
Working out its size depends on factors including the magnitude of the earthquake generated, the depth at which it was buried, and the type of rock surrounding it.
Estimates vary from South Korea’s 50 kilotons to Japan’s 160. But all of them are far larger than the 15-kiloton US bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
North Korea in July carried out its first two successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), apparently bringing much of the US mainland into range.
Seoul and Washington early Thursday deployed four more launchers in the South for the THAAD missile defense system, whose presence has infuriated Beijing.
The move was part of measures to defend the South from the North, Seoul’s defense ministry said.